Ilha de Moçambique

Ilha de Moçambique was the colonial capital of Portuguese East Africa for four centuries and one of the main ports of the Swahili coast. A stroll through the town is a walk through history.

A dhow is about to set sail in Ilha de Moçambique.
A dhow is about to set sail, Ilha de Moçambique.

Beyond Cape Bojador

When Vasco da Gama landed in Mozambique in 1499, Ilha de Moçambique was already an important port for Arab traders. Vasco da Gama’s voyage followed Diogo Cão’s expeditions beyond Cape Bojador and the Canary Islands to the Congo River. Da Gama sailed from Lissabon, rounded the Cape, but was unable to impress Ilha de Moçambique‘s sultan. He hastily sailed away – not without firing his cannons back at the town – to cross the ocean towards India. Nevertheless, the Portuguese set up their post at Ilha.

At the tip of the island stands the oldest building of the town: Capela de Nossa Senhora do Baluarte, a chapel built by the Portuguese in 1522. A fortress built with limestone imported from Lisbon in 1546-1583 embraces the chapel. Fortaleza de São Sebastião withstood the Dutch sieges of 1607/1608 and later the attacking Omani Arabs. Ilha remained the capital of Portuguese East Africa for four centuries.

The hospital in Ilha de Moçambique once served as the colonial headquarter and was built in the 18th century.
The hospital in Ilha de Moçambique once served as the colonial headquarter and was built in the 18th century.

Ilha de Moçambique‘s history doesn’t begin with the Portuguese occupation. Ships were sailing between the ports in Japan, China, India and Africa’s East coast using the Monsoon trade winds for many centuries. The book Periplus of the Erythraean Sea written in the mid first century meticulously describes navigation along the trade routes and the ports around the Red Sea. Indeed, trade relationships of ancient Rome already extended to the East African coast and India. In the first century after Christ, ships sailed down the African coast as far as Kenya and Tanzania to get ivory. That region was referred to as Rhapta in the Periplus and probably corresponds to Zanzibar and Mafia island, where archaeological evidence for Roman trade has been found.

In the 5th to 7th century, Iranian pottery found its way to Mozambique. African slaves reached China at least from the 7th century. Several mosques appeared at the coast in the 11th and 12th century. Gold from mining in Great Zimbabwe was traded via Mozambique’s Sofala coast during the 11th to 15th century. The contact between Bantu people of East Africa and the traders introduced many Arabic loan-words to the Swahili language. One of these words is Swahili itself, going back to the Arab word sahil – meaning coast.

The sun sets over Ilha de Moçambique.
The sun sets over Ilha de Moçambique.

Portuguese Occupation

With the Portuguese occupation of the East African coast, Ilha became the main Portuguese post on the way to India. In those times, it took a year to sail from Mozambique to India and back.

Ilha de Moçambique
Ilha de Moçambique: the island is 3 kilometres long and 500 metres wide.

The Portuguese initially built a church, a fort, and a hospital in their base on the route to India, soon more buildings followed. Ilha de Moçambique is still visibly divided in two parts: the old stone town, and the reed-hut macuti town. Macuti town goes back to the early 19th century as a slum inhabited by thousands of slaves. Indeed, at the end of the 19th century, Ilha’s population was 8’500. Of these were 6’000 slaves, 125 Portuguese, 500 Arabs, and 800 free Africans. Slave trade was mainly directed at the Cape colony, Réunion and Mauritius, as well as America.

Ilha de Moçambique is divided in a reed-hut zone called macuti town, and the old stone town built from the 17th century onwards. Macuti town goes back to the early 19th century when it was a slum inhabited by slaves.
Ilha de Moçambique is divided in a reed-hut zone called macuti town, and the old stone town built from the 17th century onwards. Macuti town goes back to the early 19th century when it was a slum inhabited by slaves.

After the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, and when Lourenço Marques (today’s Maputo) became Mozambique’s capital in 1898, Ilha’s importance declined. After independence, Mozambique slid into a civil war that ended 1992. The ruins of Ilha still emit a post-war atmosphere.

Street scene in Ilha de Moçambique.
Street scene, Ilha de Moçambique.
Cine Teatro Nina, Ilha de Moçambique.
Cine Teatro Nina, Ilha de Moçambique.